Scientists probe astronomer's death


An archeologist opens the grave of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe at the Church of Our Lady in Prague

The body of 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe has been exhumed as scientists attempt to discover more about his sudden and mysterious death.

Brahe’s extraordinarily accurate stellar and planetary observations, which helped lay the foundations of early modern astronomy, are well known and documented, but mystery still surrounds his demise.

It had been long thought he died of a bladder infection. A legend said it was a result of his hesitation to break court etiquette during a reception by leaving for the toilet.

But tests conducted in 1996 in Sweden and later in Denmark on samples of his moustache and hair – obtained during a previous 1901 exhumation – indicated unusually high levels of mercury, leading to a theory of mercury poisoning, or even that he had been murdered.

Mr Brahe, who was born in 1546, has been buried in the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn near Prague’s Old Town Square since his death in 1601.

Brahe was in Prague at the invitation of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II after he left his scientific observatory on the island of Hven over disagreements with the Danish king.

Jens Vellev, a professor of medieval archaeology at Aarhus University, Denmark, is leading the team of scientists from Denmark and the Czech Republic that began its work by opening the tomb in the church.

He said he decided nine years ago to seek permission from church and Prague authorities to open the tomb again because there had been no proper archaeological report of the 1901 exhumation and he hoped to gather better samples that could be analysed by contemporary technologies.

“As a man of science, he’s important for the whole world,” Professor Vellev said. “Perhaps, we will be able to come close to an answer, but I don’t think we will get a final answer to that question.”

The team of scientists has until Friday to exhume the remains of Brahe and his wife, who was buried by his side three years later, and to take the samples needed. The results of their analysis will be announced next year.

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